EL CALLAO, Venezuela -- In an effort to end disarray in the mining industry, Venezuela is planning to lift bans on gold and diamond mining in ecologically fragile areas and to grant amnesties to companies that have been mining without governmental permission.
Government officials contend that large-scale mining is easier to regulate and tax than small-scale independent mining and that it will open the country's untamed south to development.
But Venezuela, named by international executives as Latin America's most corrupt country in a survey this year, has also legalized mining with mercury and other damaging practices, despite warnings in government-commissioned studies.
It is turning gold mining contracts that the attorney general ruled were illegally awarded into far more valuable mining concessions. And a bill currently in Congress would grant companies an automatic right to a claim if the government does not answer their application within 30 days.
With the proposed changes, environmentalists predict disaster.
"Far from resolving the mining problem satisfactorily and definitively," said Anna Ponte, who runs the nonprofit Volunteer Guardians of the Environment Association in Caracas, the changes represent "the most overwhelming and highly orchestrated plan for environmental destruction to come out of Venezuela in recent years."
In clearing the way for transnational mining companies, the country has made outlaws of thousands of small-scale miners who had been prospecting here for generations, along with newcomers who flocked here from other parts of Venezuela as the price of gold shot up from $35 an ounce in the 1970s to 10 times that amount now.
The conflicts have turned this mineral-rich region into a testing ground for a fundamental question: Who should benefit from a country's mineral resources, and at what price?
"We have to see how these companies can operate in a way that benefits the people who live here," said the Rev. Ramon Fajardo, a Roman Catholic priest whose parish here includes many small miners. "The government's saying the exact opposite: that we have to take the people out because they're a problem for the transnationals."
Heightening the stakes in Venezuela, veins of gold lie below the country's most environmentally delicate regions in Bolivar state.
These include the Caroni River, which supplies drinking water for 80 percent of Bolivar. The upper Caroni basin feeds the Guri Dam, source of 72 percent of the country's electrical power. And many Indian tribes depend on the streams and rivers that connect with the Caroni for fishing and drinking water.
Various studies say gold mining has already seriously damaged these waterways. Analyses by the Venezuelan National Guard show high levels of mercury contamination in the Caroni, and more than half the people living near the lower Caroni basin were contaminated by mercury, a confidential 1990 government-commissioned study found. Bolivar state has the country's highest incidence of children born with Down syndrome and other birth defects, the Venezuelan Mining Chamber says.
In addition to birth defects, mercury poisoning causes neurological damage, with symptoms ranging from muscular atrophy to mental deterioration. In Ciudad Guyana, in Bolivar state, residents avoid the fish, once a staple of their diets, for fear of mercury poisoning.
Other environmental and health damage is caused by hydraulic mining, which involves blasting soil with powerful jets of water.
When carried out away from rivers, it leaves huge pools of still water that become breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Carried out along riverbanks, it increases sedimentation.
A 1989 report by the U.S. Interior Department for the government-owned electric utility warned that the effects of small-scale hydraulic mining in the Caroni basin were already serious.
The report said that "large-scale operations should be prohibited" because the increase in sediments would threaten the Guri Dam and its vast power generation. It warned that just a few large operations in the Caroni River could have an "irreversible" impact. "Recovery may take centuries," it said.
Despite such warnings, government officials acknowledge that mining rights have been granted in the Canaima National Park, the Upper Caroni basin and the Icabaru River -- all regions that are supposed to be under government protection. Also, more than 40 percent of the mining in Bolivar, said Luis Castro Morales, director general of the environmental ministry, is in the Imataca Forest Reserve, which is supposed to be used for
limited logging, with provisions for replanting trees.
Conflicting regulations have paralyzed the Environmental Ministry, Castro said. Legally unable to approve mining operations in fragile areas, though aware that other arms of the government had granted mining rights, it did not answer applications for permission to mine.
"That facilitated corruption," he added. "When a person cannot work with permission, they work illegally." He said that the "only solution" was to permit mining where it had been forbidden and where it was occurring anyway.
The enforcement of environmental laws here appears geared largely toward halting the operations of wildcat miners.
At the National Guard headquarters for Bolivar state, a conference table in the office of Gen. Joaquin Amundarain Delgado's office is stacked with reports and photos of raids his men have carried out against small miners. Among its other duties, the National Guard functions as Venezuela's environmental police force.
The photos show families, most of them dressed in threadbare clothes, watching as their supplies are destroyed, or as their makeshift airport is carved up.
Pub Date: 12/08/96